Harshad Nalawade’s Superb Follower Digs Into Belgaum And Finds A Miniature of India

Follower is part of a magnificent ongoing cinema movement in Karnataka, happening on the side-lines of the rapidly blurring boundary walls of mainstream cinema
Harshad Nalawade’s Superb Follower Digs Into Belgaum And Finds A Miniature of India

In Harshad Nalawade’s Follower, Belgaum looks like an urban project abandoned midway. Joyless and vapid; bricks, dust, and concrete strewn across its body. An image in absolute contrast to the city's glossy impression on India’s economic development map. 

Follower, which premiered at the IFFR (International Film Festival of Rotterdam) in February, unfolds against the backdrop of a long-standing border conflict between Karnataka and Maharashtra over Belgaum. In 1956, the district, which had a majority of Marathi speakers, was added to the state of Karnataka. Several memorandums, enquiry commissions and violent clashes later, the dispute persists, dominating the local elections. A former British military outpost, Belgaum is now an industrial and educational hub, complete with an airport and a proposed IT park. One of the many tier-two Indian cities officially awaiting a lustrous future. 

Harshad casts the city of Belgaum as one of his protagonists, and closely captures its turbulent political scene and essential small-townness. The city’s multicultural population speaks and engages in many languages – Kannada, Marathi, Hindi, and English – their uneventful daily life forming a quiet, innate resistance against the extremist forces operating on either side of the border. Harshad, a native of Belgaum, finds his human focal point in an internet troll – a foot soldier – who manufactures and spreads hate content on social media platforms. Raghu/Raghavendra Pawar (Raghu Prakash), a young technical graduate, works in Sanyukata Vaani, a digital platform that creates troll videos and social media posts for a right-wing political party that claims to fight for the rights of the Marathi community. The film follows Raghu and watches the dismantling of his private world, an event that gradually snowballs into an irredeemable greater tragedy. 

Harshad’s gaze is sympathetic, marked by a genuine wish to engage with the material and psychological factors that push a young man in an Indian small-town into the vortex of hate politics. The narrative starts from an immediate incident – a murder and an ensuing riot – and pedals back, moving from political to personal, retaining perfect lucidity all the while. In the second half, the film performs a 180-degree shift in perspective, cuts open the angry troll and humanises him. 

Follower is part of a magnificent ongoing cinema movement in Karnataka, happening on the side-lines of the rapidly blurring boundary walls of mainstream cinema. Like Natesh Hegde’s Pedro (2020), Follower digs into the small town and finds a miniature of the nation. A motley of components that build a nation-state, such as the traditional family, caste, ethnicity and patriarchy, invade individual lives. Flags and photographs of the leader are ubiquitous in the city, reminding the civilians of their duty to adhere. 

Raghu, trained to be an engineer and condemned by his loveless family to take over his late father’s sickly retail business, gravitates towards parochial politics, hoping its delirious insides would cure the overwhelming suffocation he feels in his existence. In an impressive scene set in his shop that unfolds in long takes, he clashes with a pro-Kannada outfit member who, after threatening him against supporting the Marathi parties, asks for a wedding anniversary card to gift to his wife. The scene's wry humour laughs at the absurdity of it all. 

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On the other side of the battle line is his now-estranged bosom friend Sachin (played by Harshad), who is from an upper-class Kannada household, in whose good fortune Raghu sees his hardships magnified. A third character, Parveen (Donna Munshi), a young Muslim single mother, a friend of the young men, becomes a bone of contention between them. The trajectory of their friendship is etched out superbly. In the initial scenes, Sachin and Raghu see each other only on digital screens, in their respective YouTube channels, propagating outwardly opposite yet intrinsically similar ideologies. As the film goes further backwards, you see them together, hanging out, discussing life and career, and travelling to the beautiful outskirts of the city to gaze at the tranquil horizon. They easily slip in and out of different languages in their conversations, reaffirming that identity is something free-flowing, shapeshifting and accommodative. If friendship offers them a landscape of great freedom, radical politics imprisons them in watertight compartments. 

Raghu Prakash, a debut actor, delivers an excellent performance. From a state of passivity, he erupts in rage so seamlessly, like a river suddenly undammed. He carefully brings to the fore the subtle signs of depression growing inside the young man. Harshad’s narrative is brilliantly restrained, never once sinking into sentimentalism, even while portraying the intense collapse of Raghu’s friendship with Sachin and Parveen, or the young man’s fatal descent into exasperation. Yet, the pain is registered, with none of the nuances lost. Raghu cuts a deeply tragic figure who loses sight of himself in a political war that isn’t his. 

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